Illinois Public Media News
The Illinois House has followed the Senate's lead and approved changes to give new life to electricity legislation that Gov. Pat Quinn opposes.
The House voted 91-24 Wednesday on the issue referred to at the state Capitol as "Smart Grid."
The Democratic governor opposes a plan allowing power companies to raise rates for system improvements like the high-tech grid. Critics say it would generate unfair profits and weaken state regulators.
Supporters say the new measure makes changes to address some complaints like the issue of power-company profits. They hope the adjustments will lure enough votes to override Quinn's veto of the original plan.
In East Central Illinois, five of seven representatives voted for the measure: Jason Barickman (R-Champaign), Dan Brady (R-Bloomington), Chad Hays (R-Catlin), Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana), and Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet). House members Adam Brown (R-Decatur) and Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth) voted against it.
The Illinois Senate has approved changes intended to help revive electricity legislation vetoed by the governor.
The changes passed 37-20 Tuesday, despite opposition from Gov. Pat Quinn, who earlier in the day said he will work with the attorney general, AARP and other groups to block the legislation.
"I think that veto should be sustained by members of the General Assembly," said Quinn. "And everybody goes back to the drawing board and comes up with a comprehensive energy policy that is not harmful to our consumers and businesses in Illinois or our governments."
At issue is a plan to let power companies raise rates to pay for infrastructure improvements, including high-tech changes called "Smart Grid.'' Critics say the plan guarantees unfair profits and weakens state regulators.
Now supporters are trying to pass a "trailer bill'' that addresses some complaints, such as the size of profits. The idea is that if these changes are approved, a few additional lawmakers may be willing to override Quinn's veto of the underlying plan.
The override would succeed in the Senate if it gets support from everyone who voted for the trailer bill Tuesday.
The Champaign County Board will begin discussion of a permit for the Invenergy wind farm at committee meeting next month, but the county's Zoning Board of Appeals says the permit request should be denied.
On Thursday night, the ZBA voted 5-to-2 last night against the Invenergy project, citing concerns about noise pollution, and disagreement over how to handle the cost of decommissioning the turbines when they're no longer useful.
The Champaign County Board will have to reverse the decision of the Zoning Board of Appeals if it wants to locate a wind farm in the northeast part of the county. Board members cited concerns with the Chicago company's standards for noise pollution impacting the yard of a rural resident. County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said the company's standards for noise don't comply with those of the Illinois Pollution Control Board.
"This is regarding whether the noise standard applies just at the line of the dwelling, or in the yard outside of the dwelling," Hall said. "It's that simple. Why would have a residential noise standard that only applies inside the dwelling? "
If the permit were approved, and Invenergy went bankrupt in 10 years, Hall said he is afraid no financial lien holder would step in at that point, meaning Champaign County may have to find more money to decommission the wind farm.
Marvin Johnson, who is the highway commissioner of Champaign County's Compromise Township, said he supports the plan. According to Johnson, the township's road agreement with Invenergy would bring substantial upgrades to a 14-mile stretch of road.
"Tremendous benefits to the road district," Johnson said. "Upgrading of roads, financial assistance, things that in our small district, we've probably never be able to come up with. That's why I'm in favor of it."
Despite the ZBA's vote, the Champaign County Board has the final say. Board Democrat Alan Kurtz said the county can't afford not to come to a compromise with Invenergy.
"Our county needs the revenue," he said. "Our county needs clean, renewable energy. Our county needs safe wind farm turbines. This is my opinion, but I personally feel that we need to follow the ordinance. But I think that there are ways that we can always work around any considerable problems."
Kurtz said Invenergy has 'bent over backwards' to comply with what he calls one of the most stringent county wind ordinances in the state.
The Champaign County Board will first take up the proposal at the Nov. 1 Committee of the Whole meeting.
Invenergy was expected to start initial work on 100 turbines in Vermilion County this week. Champaign County's portion of the project would involve 39 turbines.
A wind farm in Paxton is about seven months ahead of schedule, with plans to be on line early next year.
About 100 people attended an open house Thursday hosted by E-On Climate and Renewables, just east of the Ford County city. Nine of the first 77 turbines to be built are now in operation.
Company spokesman Matt Tulis says it's been able to feed off the success of another wind farm it operates in Iroquois County. He says the first turbines went up in late June, and the company has been able to keep up that pace.
"Weather is always a factor," said Tulis. "We like to build these projects in windy areas, and sometimes it's too windy to do construction. But we've really been fortunate here lately, and been able to stay ahead of schedule."
The wind farm plans aren't sitting well with everyone in the area. Cindy Ehrke with the group Energize Illinois says the Ford County Board failed to consider the downside of wind turbines, like noise pollution and the impact on wildlife. Her group has followed wind farm research in sites ranging from upstate New York to Australia. Ehrke says the Ford County Board should have looked at issues ranging from setbacks from property, impacts on wildlife, and noise before letting the Paxton project proceed.
"There's no real teeth to the enforcement of 'what if this does happen if they do go over the noise limit", she said. "What if there's a shadow flicker in somebody's house and it is causing them problems? What is the consequence, and what steps is the company taking? They're just not there in the ordinance."
Ihrke says the wind farm issue has prompted her and two other members of Energize Illinois to run for the Ford County Board. Roberts could also become the home to a wind farm. Two companies will speak at an informational meeting, scheduled for November 10th at the Roberts Village Gym.
Ameren Illinois says its natural gas customers can expect to pay about the same for gas this winter as they did last year.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said they estimate gas prices to continue at their current level. The gas delivered by the utility averages about $0.61 per term last winter --- and Morris said the average this winter should be $0.62 per therm. He said that would continue a pattern of moderate natural gas prices that's been going on for about three years.
"It's pretty much been fueled by sluggish economies, soft worldwide demand for energy in all forms, and then a little more recently, the discovery of tremendous supplies of natural gas in shale formations right here in the United States and Canada," Morris said.
Morris also said that Ameren Illinois has enough natural gas available to meet customer needs even during a tough winter. While Ameren has most of its natural gas supplies hedged or "price-protected" to ensure against market volatility, the price the utility charges for delivering that gas to customers could go up. Morris says their delivery rate has already increased slightly, and could go up again this winter.
"There was a very small increase in the last rate case we had before the Illinois Commerce Commission," Morris said. "There is another rate case before the Commerce Commission now, which will not be decided until January. And I really can't predict what the Commission will do."
If the ICC grants the full rate increase requested by Ameren, Morris said natural gas delivery rates would go up around $4.85 a month for former CIPS customers, and $7.47 a month for former customers of Illinois Power. But Morris said it's more likely that smaller increases would be approved.
Morris said the delivery rate typically makes up about one-third of a customer's natural gas bill, with the rest paying for the gas itself. Morris said Ameren makes its profit on the delivery charge, and simply passes along the cost of the gas itself.
Morris advises customers to visit Ameren's ActOnEnergy.com website to review tips for saving on energy costs. He said customers can enroll in a Budget Billing plan at AmerenIllinois.com to better manage their energy bills.
It will likely be at least next week before the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals signs off on plans for a wind farm, and forwarding the proposal to the County Board.
The ZBA is scheduled to meet Thursday night, and Planning and Zoning Director John Hall says two of three agreements - a county road agreement and one for reclamation - have been reached.
But he says they haven't been sent to the board, and Hall says a state law requires no more than a 30-day window between the ZBA and county board meetings to discuss wind farm proposals. Hall says having another week to meet would work to the zoning board's advantage.
"Given that there are two large documents that still need to be considered, I think it would be difficult to take final action this Thursday," he said. "So, final action probably would be possible, but we need to continue anyhow, and frankly, we haven't yet got a copy of the township road agreement."
Hall says the zoning board will likely schedule another hearing for next Thursday, October 20th, prior to the 7 p.m. Champaign County Board meeting. He says that would meet the state's demands for the county board to take up the wind farm proposal by its November 17 meeting. The ZBA has been meeting on the plan since late August.
If the Vermilion County Board signs off on a road agreement with Chicago-based Invenergy this week, County Board Chair Jim McMahon says the company could begin the initial work on the county's 104 turbines as soon as Monday, starting just northeast of Kickapoo State Park. Thirty of the turbines are targeted for Champaign County.
McMahon says the lack of zoning in his county has allowed authorities to avoid other agreements that Champaign County is dealing with now.
"154 people have signed up and said 'we want wind turbines. 104 of them did get wind turbines," he said. "And without zoning, the county board has no input and should have no input without zoning on what they do with their land, unless it was an illegal action."
McMahon says the disadvantage of having no zoning is that Vermilion County can't increase setbacks on the property of anyone concerned about the noise or shadows caused by wind turbines. The Vermilion County Board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Invenergy's wind farm is expected to start operations by early 2013.
UPDATE: Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon says the board unanimously approved the road agreement Tuesday night, and county officials plan to meet with Invenergy later this week with hopes of starting wind farm construction by Monday.
Eastern Illinois University has replaced its old coal-fired steam plant with one the largest renewable energy projects in the U.S.
The school holds a grand opening Friday afternoon for its Renewable Energy Center. The facility using gasification technology will rely on more than 27,000 tons of wood chips a year to heat the campus. The chips are fed into a low-oxygen, high temperature environment, and gas emissions will generate the steam for that heat.
EIU President William Perry says just a handful of American universities have this type of plant, one that will provide some academic lessons as well.
"We can do some public service in the areas of alternative energy," he said. "We plan to use the site, which has more land available for field trips, for K-12 students, and other individuals in the community who are interested in that kind of operation."
Perry says the savings on the energy contract allowed Eastern to pay off the cost of the energy center without state money or student fees. EIU Energy and Sustainability Coordinator Ryan Siegel says a lot of things had to fall in place.
That includes two bills passed by Illinois lawmakers - one extended the payback periods for performance contracts to 20 years, and another allowed pilot projects to be paid for under that same window of time.
Siegel says those measures, and the energy savings from the Center itself, will pay for the $80-million facility.
"The entire project reduced the forward energy and water consumption of campus," he said. "It reduced our future costs, allowing us to pay off the debt over a 20-year time frame."
The facility is the result of a collaboration with Honeywell. It's expected to save EIU more than $140-million over the next two decades.
(Photo courtsey of Eastern Illinois University)
University of Illinois students are taking part in a competition where they are presenting a solar-powered home that they have designed and constructed. It's part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, an event that has attracted students from 20 universities around the world.
Graduate student Beth Neuman is the project manager for the U of I's team. She said her team's entry is designed to serve as an immediate replacement for people whose homes were destroyed by a tornado.
"Last year, multiple tornadoes came through Central Illinois, and we actually visited Streator, Illinois, and they were hit by a tornado, and a lot of families were affected by that," Neuman said. "So, we sort of wanted to focus on a market that was closer to home, and help people in our own community."
Neuman said the portable home can be shipped in two units by truck, with solar panels mounted on the roof. She estimates the cost for a single home at around $260,000. However, she said if it was mass produced, it would be more affordable. Neuman said architecture, affordability, and energy balance are just some of the factors that each home will be judged on in the competition.
The houses in the Solar Decathlon are currently on display at the National Mall's West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. A winner will be announced Oct 1.
One of the 101 Ameren Illinois workers sent to help repair power lines in Vermont says Hurricane Irene unleashed flash-flooding in the state of a kind unseen in Illinois.
Mark Drawve is an electrical superintendent with Ameren's Mattoon office. He said Vermont's terrain, with its steep hills, causes devastating floods that have cause damage, in a way that wouldn't happen in Illinois.
"Not in this form, no," Drawve said. "We're in Illinois, which is mostly pretty flat and rural. They're having the challenge of even having to rebuild whole lines, because the water just washed out complete sections of transmission lines and sub-transmission lines. So they are in the process of building brand-new lines."
Drawve said he and his fellow Ameren Illinois crew members are working 17-hour days to restore power in and around Vermont's second largest city, Rutland. The area is served by Central Vermont Public Service. Drawve said that besides washing out power lines, the flooding has washed out roads, making it hard for their crews to travel around the region.
"We sent some crews Sunday evening to areas that they knew would be impacted by the flash floods," Drawve said. "Because of that, until they get some roads repaired, we can't even get those crews back, or hooked up back with the main force. And they continue to work on those roads as we speak."
With all these difficulties, Drawve said that as of Tuesday morning, line crews had restored power to about 18,000 of the 38,000 people who lost power in Vermont. He said Ameren crews did the work for about 6,000 of those customers in the Rutland area. But Drawve said they are not used to working in hills and valleys --- and said there is talk of moving the Ameren crew to another area, and bringing in a Canadian crew more familiar with Vermont's type of terrain.
Plans for a wind farm in Champaign County drew mostly spectators in the first of what could be several hearings before the county's Zoning Board of Appeals.
About 60 people came to hear from Chicago-based developer Invenergy discuss its project. Champaign County's portion of the large farm would mean 30 turbines north of Royal, producing 48 megawatts of power. More than 100 turbines will be located in Vermilion County, where a building permit was approved last spring.
The majority of those who spoke supported Invenergy's plans to erect 30 wind turbines in the northeast part of the county, north of Royal. But some had concerns about the wind farm's impact on property values. And others had questions about the road agreements that Invenergy has yet to reach with township governments. Deanne Simms of Penfield called the prospect of being surrounded by turbines 'disturbing,' and she questioned the impact on property values, and Invenergy's road agreement at the end of the wind farm's life span.
"So my question is whatever standard they come down to when they leave, who's going to pay to fix the roads?" she said. "Whose taxes are going up to pay for that?"
But Philo resident Michael Herbert said Invenergy has been an economic boon for his electrical workers' union, providing jobs with more than 350 turbines in the counties served by its members.
"This project and Invenergy, having worked with them before, they built quality projects," he said. "And having driven out on on the roads after these projects are done, the roads are as good or better when completed."
The company's business development manager, Greg Leutchman, said the first hearing presented a chance for area residents to form their own opinion. But before the project can move forward, he said the road agreement must be finalized, as well as ones for decommissioning the turbines, and land reclamation.
"With those agreements, we just want to make sure that we're taking the right information into account, that we're talking to the right people," Leutchman said. "Getting the agreements done to make sure they work for the county and the townships as well as creating a successful project."
Four more ZBA wind farm hearings are scheduled through next month. But County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said it is better the meetings stretch into October than disturb what he calls a 'delicate negotiation' that's gone on over two years, with still nothing in writing with landowners. Invenergy still has to settle road agreements, as well as decommissioning and reclamation plans.
The next SBA hearing on the wind farm proposal is set for Sept. 1.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
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